“When things fall apart and we can’t get the pieces back together, when we lose something dear to us, when the whole thing is just not working, and we don’t know what to do, this is the time when the natural warmth of tenderness, the warmth of empathy and kindness, are just waiting to be uncovered, just waiting to be embraced. This is our chance to come out of our self-protecting bubble and realize that we are never alone.”
— Pema Chödrön (Taking the Leap)
Last month, I had my first vivid encounter with grief. My first funeral.
I’m hesitating, on the verge of tears, as I write this, sitting in the back of a coffee shop fighting the urge to just go home and cry. I’m forcing myself to take this moment to confront grief for the first time. It’s too easy to stuff it in the back of our minds and let time erode the vividness away.
The sounds of grief are primal and horrific — wailing, uncontrollable sobbing, gasps for air that sound like someone drowning over and over again. The heaviness of the room creates an echo chamber. The sniffles, the tension from restraining tears, the sobs — they become contagious, like vomiting in a locked, unventilated room.
It’s a fucking monster of an emotion. And because we are empathetic creatures, after all, we contend with that emotion by looking away, avoiding its gaze, distancing, disengaging. Push it all down. Pretend it’s not there.
I wonder about that tension. That tension you feel when you try to hold back the emotion, the sobbing, the grief — I feel it between my eyes, and swallow it down in a big gulp, and somehow, it all gets pushed down somewhere. Where does it all go? Is that how we deal with grief? How do we make our peace with it all?
Breathe. I found that fucking word repeat in my mind, but to even think it felt so condescending, let alone say it out loud. As if that would help. As if we could conjure up the mindfulness in those moments and have all of this heaviness become light and fleeting.
I have no answers. We’re all clueless and scared in the face of death. That’s how it will always be, with every death. And that’s okay.
It is this confrontation with grief that makes us really feel our humanity.
Your mind attaches so much more to those moments. It’s never just what it is: it is the meaning of a son seeing his mother for the last time, the idea of a son grasping for those moments of happiness, pride and meaning, the concept of a son leaving his mother with last words, through tears and so, so much pain. Because they are all moments that we will all encounter at some point in our lives.
Those moments are hard to erase from your mind, and unfailingly invoke tears. And they’re images that don’t deserve to be stowed away in the back of one’s head never to be revisited — no, they’re real, powerful images of our mortality that should also unfailingly invoke the gratitude that we must have for the life we have and the lives around us that we enjoy today.
We are sometimes told to think of our own eulogies when making decisions in life. But what I found grounds me more is not my own eulogy, but the imagery of my own mother dying and of the eulogy I will have to deliver that one day.
After all, I will not be mourning my own death; my section in the obituary column matters very little to me. But what does matter is the eulogy of others’ whose lives I can impact — people who I love and care about who I might actually have to give a eulogy for.
Because I know it would be the greatest pain to stand up there that day and regret that I did not do everything I could have done to make that life happier, more fulfilled, more appreciated.
Perhaps the light is this. The strangest thing about funerals that I never expected is that it can be like a social event that almost invokes the feeling of a wedding: the gathering of friends and family, the catching up, the stupid stories about nothing to lighten up the mood, the laughter and smiles that follow.
It’s a bit awkward when we’re supposed to be grieving, but take it as a gift from the deceased and be grateful for the fleeting happiness of those moments when you were brought together.